Leaving everything from Washington Avenue to the Mississippi River for a fourth day, I planned a nice, systematic route to finish off the rest of what I hadn’t walked on days one and two. And then reality happened. As a result of construction, the block of Nicollet Mall between Washington Avenue and 3rd Street was closed even to pedestrians. Had I kept my wits about me, I would have just done a one-block detour and picked back up as planned. Instead, I made a complete hash out of my route. Rather than confuse all my readers with the route I actually walked, I’ve reordered the photos and will pretend I walked essentially as planned.
In the route map below, the blue tint indicates the full extent of the Downtown West neighborhood, while the convoluted blue path indicates the planned route from the Central Library on Hennepin Avenue back to that same point. It first meanders back and forth between Washington Avenue and 6th Street as far as Portland Avenue, then uses 3rd, 4th, and 5th streets to meander in the perpendicular direction between Portland Avenue and 1st Avenue North before finishing with the section of Hennepin from 6th Street back to the library. (There’s also one block of Portland Avenue, shown in red, walked as a supplemental back-and-forth spur off of the main loop.)
The Minneapolis Central Library, part of the Hennepin County Library system, is remarkable not only for its contemporary architecture but also for the extensive resources it provides. The special collections department is particularly helpful with regard to local history. Beyond the digital and microfiche resources I routinely consult, at the time of this visit they were hosting a special exhibition on the Hennepin County Medical Center and its predecessors, which will help me a lot when I walk the Elliot Park neighborhood. That exhibit has closed in the meantime, but I recommend keeping your eyes open for other special events hosted by the library.
Turning right from Hennepin onto Washington Avenue, I quickly came to the point where I ought to have turned right again onto Nicollet Mall, but couldn’t. That’s also the point where I encountered the architect Minoru Yamasaki’s masterpiece, built in 1964 for Northwestern National Life and now housing Voya Financial. This location isn’t a coincidence; the portico of the building is directly across Washington Avenue from the Nicollet Mall precisely so as to provide a sightline from the mall to the Hennepin Avenue bridge.
The same architectural firm later designed two other nearby buildings, one of which caught my eye diagonally across Washington and Marquette Avenues because of its its dramatic fenestration. Back on the riverward side of Washington, I also admired the end of the 1964 building opposite from the portico.
Once I was able to get onto Nicollet Mall and turn from there onto 6th Street, I walked around the two sides of the Farmers and Mechanic’s Bank building that face 6th Street and Marquette Avenue. I had photographed this building from further off on day two but could now focus on the reliefs. On the 6th Street side, the main entry is flanked by a farmer and a mechanic. On Marquette, a dog labeled Fides (trustworthiness) lies on top of a treasure chest. In addition to the reliefs, I noted the decorative windows over the main entrance and the grilles in the form of heads of grain.
Across Marquette, the Rand Tower provides its own symbolic imagery, not all of which was so clear to me. Andy Sturdevant helpfully explained that “Rand was, in addition to being the head of the Minneapolis Gas Company, an enthusiastic aviator, and so the Rand Tower is a hymn to the Golden Age of Aviation.” That accounts for the pair of wings I spotted atop an otherwise floral carving between the first and second floor windows. But who is the fellow on the door handles, and what is the ball he is holding? The posture doesn’t look right for either Sisyphus or Atlas, and I can’t think what either of those has to do with either gas or aviation. Please let me know if you have the answer!
Completely aside from the subject matter, these decorations are enjoyable as relics of the 1920s design sensibility. In the same light, I admired the stylish nameplate with its art deco lettering. Note the contrast between thick and thin strokes as well as the low waistline. (Other art deco fonts instead have an unusually high waistline; it just needs to be off-kilter.)
Following in Sturdevant’s footsteps, I also visited the facade of the former Scandinavian Bank Building, just riverward from the Rand Tower on the same side of the block. In his words, this “charming and bizarre remainder of the era’s sense of exotic whimsy [is] a small, red building, a little worse for the wear, built in 1895 and refurbished in 1925.” As Dylan Thomas commented, that 1925 refurbishment date was close on the heels of the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb, perhaps explaining the incorporation of elements inspired by ancient Egypt.
At the 5th Street end of that block, the 20-story Soo Line building is another example of a historic facade punctured by a skyway. Even looking at the elements from 1915, the lower stories appear as a rather self-contained beaux arts low-rise, with the high-rise U-shaped tower growing out of its roof rather stolidly, more in the Chicago commercial style.
Moving a block toward the river, across Marquette, and a century toward the present, the 30-story 4Marq apartment tower is notable precisely for its high-rise portion, which rises skyward with simple, clean lines that nonetheless provide a lot of textural interest.
After using a block of Washington Avenue to wrap around from Marquette to 2nd Avenue, I started heading back away from the river, toward 6th Street. On the downstream side of 2nd Avenue, the block between Washington and 3rd Street is occupied by the Wells Fargo Operations Center. More precisely, the site occupies the full block, but the building doesn’t; it has a diagonal wall that leaves the corner of the lot free for a plaza. The focal point of that plaza is a fabricated metal sculpture by Mark di Suvero titled Inner Search (1979–1980).
I include the next photo as a warning (to myself, if no one else) that old-school charm does not equal history. The entrance on this 1929 building, the Old Republic Title Building, has a certain “historical” quality to it, no? But the title company didn’t take the Old Republic name until 1993, following the 1978 acquisition of Minnesota Title by Old Republic International Corp.
This portion of downtown is rich with government buildings, especially on 3rd Avenue South. In the plaza between the Hennepin County Government Center and 5th Street, the sculpture Phoenix Rising by Karen Sontag Sattel (1996) is particularly worth a close look. She cast it out of molten down guns that the county attorney had arranged to buy back from youth. The upper portions can be read from a distance as the phoenix and flame; for them, the only benefit from standing close is to better appreciate the surface texture. But the bottom part (above the pyramidal frustrum base) can only be seen as more than an irregular blob if you get close. It depicts a heap of oxidized scrap, with discernible objects poking out of its surface. Most are mundane: comb, can, gear, bolt. But every once in a while, a gun is jarringly included as just another piece of trash.
The next building riverward, on the opposite side of the Government Plaza metro station, is the Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County Courthouse, constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Sources differ regarding the precise start and end dates.) Words like “impressive” and “massive” can’t do it justice.
A few blocks further riverward, I once again turned onto Washington Avenue for a block, taking it over to 4th Avenue South. The riverward side of Washington Avenue is occupied by the Milwaukee Road depot (built 1897–1899), which is now part of a hotel complex. Besides its age, it is distinguished by its restrained renaissance revival style (in contrast to the far grander beaux arts style of other stations) and by being a good example of the head, or stub, style of station. That is, the trains dead-ended in a train shed adjacent to the station building (at the right of the photos), rather than running past or though it. The square top of the clock tower reflects its loss in a 1941 storm of an additional 40 feet of “elaborately spired cupola.”
The 300 block of 4th Avenue South contains two buildings, the Flour Exchange and Grain Exchange, that illustrate how Minneapolis’s history as the “mill city” gave rise to its continuing role as a financial services center. (The Lumber Exchange is elsewhere, later on this walk.) Large-scale milling produced the need for a commodities market, and the uncertainties in the commodities market in turn created the need for trading in futures and options.
On the upstream side of the avenue, the Flour Exchange building is notable for its simplicity; the terra cotta above the entry arch is really the one particularly decorative element. The building’s 11-story size testifies to the significant business interests it housed. On the other hand, the timing of the building’s construction also testifies to the precariousness of those businesses. Construction began in 1892 and had only progressed through the first four stories when the panic of 1893 hit. The building was not completed until 1909.
While the Flour Exchange was on hold, the more recent (1900–1902) Grain Exchange building was constructed on the other side of the avenue. Its facade contains considerably more decorative terra cotta. Some of the decorations are explicitly grain themed. For example, down practically at sidewalk level, there are rows of annular ornaments as shown in the first photo below, each displaying grain in the center, with ears of maize between each ring and the next. Other ornaments are more generic. For example, the second photo shows the street labels at the corner, surrounded by geometric ornamentation. (Grain is visible at the top of the photo, though, above the street signs.) The street signs also incorporate the monograms “K & C” at the lower corners; these are the signature of architects Kees and Colburn.
Unlike the Flour Exchange and Lumber Exchange, which are today just names of buildings, the Minneapolis Grain Exchange is continuing as a commodity-trading market. Growth in the early 20th century was strong enough to construct two adjoining buildings. The photo below shows the contrast between the original grey 1902 Grain Exchange building on the left and the orange (and slightly taller) 1909 East Annex in the center of the photo. Although most of the East Annex is plainer than the original building, the top (visible here) and the bottom incorporate renaissance-revival elements.
After 4th Avenue South, I similarly walked 5th Avenue (but in the riverward direction) and then for the first time walked more than a single block in the perpendicular direction, following 3rd Street all the way from Portland Avenue to the first block beyond Hennepin, that is, 1st Avenue North.
At the corner of 3rd Street and 1st Avenue North, I went into the McKesson Building, which I had photographed from the outside on day two. My goal was to have some lunch at Dong Hae, a Korean restaurant that also serves sushi. Summer having finally arrived, I decided to order one of the cold buckwheat noodle (naengmyeon) dishes. A coin flip decided it would be the spicy bibim naengmyeon, a decision I didn’t regret.
Should you dine at Dong Hae, I suggest you use the restroom. Besides the obvious sanitary advantages, this will cause you to pass through the main lobby area of the McKesson Building, allowing you to see the Model 555 switchboard that the McKesson & Robbins drug company used from 1948 to 1973, together with Zelda, the sculptured operator now seated before it. (Leo Sewell sculpted Zelda in 1987.)
Heading back in the downstream direction on 4th Street, the first crossing was Hennepin Avenue, which gave me the opportunity to take a more complete photo of the library.
Crossing back over 3rd Avenue — the heart of the government district — I passed the Public Service Center on the upstream side and then the US District Court on the downstream side. For the 1957 Public Service Center, I was particularly taken by the nesting porticos, a clever bit of modernist design. At the federal court, I wandered around the landscaped plaza (designed by Martha Schwartz) admiring the lighthearted sculptures by Tom Otterness. (Even with eight photos, I haven’t shown all the sculptures.)
After continuing on 4th Street to Portland Avenue and then returning on 5th Street, I wound up in net effect moving one block away from the river, to the far side of the Minneapolis City Hall. There I encountered (and posed with) Rodger M. Brodin’s sculpture of Hubert H. Humphrey.
Crossing Nicollet Mall on 5th Street, I noticed something interesting, captured in the photo below. The bulk of the photo is occupied by 414 Nicollet Mall, the original headquarters building for Xcel Energy, the utility holding company. (When the building was constructed in 1965, it housed Northern States Power, a predecessor to Xcel.) At the far right of the photo, you can just see the skyway connecting it over the mall to the new (2016) headquarters building. I left that out because it wasn’t what interested me. What interested me was the grey building in the background at the left side of the photo, and in particular the ghost sign on it: “EDISON BLDG.” Edison? As in not only Thomas Edison, but the Edison Light and Power Company? That’s just too perfect — that the center of today’s electric utility should be within a block of its 19th-century forerunner.
The Edison Building was engulfed by the larger Lumber Exchange Building; more about that in a bit. Particularly now that a hotel was built directly to the riverward side, the little bit visible in the above photo is the only place you can see that it was once separate.
The Western Electrician (published every Saturday in Chicago) devoted most of page 150 in its September 20, 1890, issue (Vol. VII, No. 12) to a description of this “excellent plant,” 60 by 100 feet in size and 12 stories tall. The ground floor had three 160-horsepower steam engines supplied by six tubular boilers fueled with wood shavings. The engines were belted to six dynamos on the floor above, each capable of powering 1000 lights. The remaining 10 stories were to be leased to manufacturers who would use electric-powered motors. Customers using motors as well as lights were also supplied elsewhere in the downtown, using underground connections.
Of the customers mentioned, the most intriguing is the “Electric Bath,” which had a 15-horsepower motor. That phrase was used in other contexts for various quackish therapeutic devices that subjected the body to electric current or electrically produced light, but none of those would have involved a motor. I’m guessing this might have been a public bath with a motor to pump the water. In 1890, the Lumber Exchange had just being extended with the portion along Hennepin. (More about that in a bit.) In the photo below, note that the far left entry archway is lower than the others. This is the one labeled “TURKISH BATHS” in a Minnesota Historical Society photo they date to approximately 1905. Could it already have been operating in 1890, when that wing of the building was newly constructed? Could it have been the “Electric Bath” with the motor? I’m fascinated by this possibility in part because of its location directly in front of the Edison Building. Heating the bath water with the waste heat from the steam engines would be a natural way to save energy.
The Lumber Exchange Building has a complicated history, having been added onto repeatedly. The most evident change if you see the whole facade is the addition of the 11th and 12th floors. (My photo only shows the first 10, so you can’t see that the other two are visually distinct.) However, the footprint has also expanded. In the photo above, the traffic light post in the foreground (with the warning “do not turn on to tracks”) coincidentally serves to mark the dividing line between the two sections. The section to the right of that line, with the smaller of the non-bath entry arches, was built in 1885–1886 along 5th Street. The section to the left, with somewhat ruddier stone and the larger entryway, was added in 1889–1890. Together with the Edison Building, they formed a U shape. This is clearer if you look at historical photos showing first just the 5th Street portion, then the Hennepin portion under construction, with the Edison Building behind it.
Most recently, a 1980 addition extended the 5th Street portion almost as far toward Nicollet Mall as the Edison Building, nearly completing the engulfment of that building. That’s the red area just visible to the left of the Edison Building in my earlier photo. This 1980 addition is also where the skyway is connected and served to fully enclose the light well in the middle of the what had previously been a U. If you look at satellite imagery, you can make out the distinct parts of the building.
Phew. Leaving the Lumber Exchange, I continued to 1st Avenue on 5th Street, then back to Hennepin on 6th Street. On 6th Street, I photographed the renaissance revival building containing Glueck’s Restaurant and Bar, capturing at the same time the back tower of the Masonic Temple. (I included a frontal photo of that building on day two.)
The 500 block of Hennepin contains a Bob Dylan mural on the downstream side and The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts on the upstream side. The physical structure of the Cowles Center has quite a story, being constructed from the relocated Schubert Theatre, the repurposed Masonic Temple, and some new construction. Happily, quite a bit of that story is told on the center’s own site.
Finally, as I neared the library, I took a photo of the Happy Hour Bar and Gay 90s Night Club. The area has other gay bars, but this establishment may be of particular interest to my history-minded readers because of the oral history that Michelle LeBow published in City Pages.
Editor’s Note: Max Hailperin is walking each of Minneapolis’ 87 neighborhoods, in alphabetical order. He chronicles his adventures at allofminneapolis.com, where the original version of this article was published June 1, 2017. We’re sharing them here at streets.mn.